Prospects Uncertain as Reformists Unite in Iran Iran's reformists lost control of parliament four years ago. Now, they hope to capitalize on dissatisfaction with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies to regain a significant minority of seats. But they face considerable obstacles.

Prospects Uncertain as Reformists Unite in Iran

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Iran is holding parliamentary elections tomorrow and Iranian reformers are hoping for a comeback. They controlled the parliament from the late 1990s to 2004. Since then, they've been nearly shut out of politics. But in recent years, Iran's economy has gotten worse; inflation and unemployment are both on the rise. And now, conservative leaders are squabbling about who's to blame.

So, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran, Iran's reformers see an opportunity.

(Soundbite of music)

MIKE SHUSTER: Islamshahr is a small city on the southern outskirts of Tehran. On Wednesday, it was the site of one of the few full-fledged political rallies to take place before tomorrow's parliamentary election. The street outside the tiny Ali Ibn Musa Reza Mosque was clod with people, old men in dusty grey suits, women wearing head scarves or black chadors, teenagers with spiky hair and children waiving little flags.

The big draw was former President Mohammad Khatami, the leading reformist who preceded Iran's current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. MOHAMMAD KHATAMI (Leading Reformist, Former Iranian President): (Speaking in foreign language)

SHUSTER: Nowadays, reformers don't have a loud voice, Khatami told the crowd, the conservatives try to destroy our reputation. But he said, people must be permitted to criticize the ruling system and change it if it doesn't respond to their demands. One of the charges conservatives level against the reformists is that they don't support the system of Islamic government now nearly 30 years old. So organizers of the rally in Islamshahr were careful to include all the right symbols, including an opening recitation from the Quran.

(Soundbite of opening recitation of the Quran)

SHUSTER: But for the reformists, the key issue is the economy. Inflation is at 20 percent, unemployment is rising and President Ahmadinejad has made promises of prosperity that he and his conservative supporters in parliament had been unable to fulfill. Reformist candidate Behzad Gareyazi believes the conservatives are vulnerable on economic issues.

Mr. BEHZAD GAREYAZI (Reformist Candidate): People who are voting will consider the situation they are living in and the situation they were in the previous government. In President Khatami's administration, I believe, people think that they had better livelihood.

SHUSTER: The reformists must overcome considerable obstacles if they are to regain even a substantial minority of seats in the parliament. Hundreds of reformers were disqualified by the Guardian Council which has ultimate say over who can be a candidate in Iran. This council was appointed by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini who wields ultimate authority here.

As a result, the two main slates of reformists have not been able to nominate enough candidates to run for all the seats in the 290-seat parliament. The campaign is very short, less than a week, and the reformists don't have access to state-controlled media. But Iranians are familiar with this battle between conservatives and reformers. It has dominated politics here for more than a decade.

The conservatives have sought to portray the reformers as enemies of the Islamic Republic. At a meeting this week of the United Front of Fundamentalists, party secretary Mohammad Nabi Habibi charged that the Islamic Republic is under threat from secularists.

Mr. MOHAMMAD NABI HABIBI (Secretary of United Front of Fundamentalists): (Speaking in foreign language)

SHUSTER: They are outsiders, Habibi said. And our main goal is to fill the seats in parliament so the outsiders, the enemies of the Islamic Revolution, can't gain control.

The conservatives may have some problems of their own in this election. They are running five separate slates — some that support Ahmadinejad's policies, others that are critical of him and led by well-known personalities who hope to replace him in next year's presidential election. Iranians understand that what can be achieved in elections like this is limited. But at the rally the other day in Islamshahr, there were still those who expressed the hope that participation in elections, however imperfect, can bring change to Iran.

This is Abdullah Mersali, a high school English teacher.

Mr. ABDULLAH MERSALI (English Teacher): We are going to tell to other countries that we can make better our community; we can make better our future, by this election.

Results in Iran's parliamentary election are not expected until next week.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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